Let the competition begin.
That was the theme Friday when Vikings general manager Rick Spielman sat down with the local Twin Cities media for a 40-minute question and answer session. As would be expected, it didn’t take long for quarterbacks to dominate the conversation.
The line of questioning was no surprise – why bring in Josh Freeman when it seemed obvious that to get a realistic evaluation of him, he would have to be in the starting lineup? The general perception has been that the signing of Freeman likely spells the end of the Vikings careers of Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. Whether that is the case or not when all is said and done at the end of December, Spielman pointed out that the Vikings are always looking to improve their roster and the signing of Freeman gives the coaching staff and the offensive skill position players another option that can help the Vikings – in both the short-term and potentially in the long-term.
“Any time that we make a decision to bring in a player – because I know there’s 8,000 different things that are going on out through the media, speculation, and this source and that source – I can tell you that any time we make a roster move, ultimately, that’s my decision,” Spielman said. “I take responsibility for that. Whether that’s good or bad, that’s my job. But I’m a firm believer in having everybody on the same page and for the move in the organization. So any time we make a move, whatever move, it’s very much discussed in detail with our coaching staff, it’s discussed in detail with our scouts, it’s discussed in detail with our ownership, and these are the reasons why we should or shouldn’t do this move.”
There has been a lot of suspicions surrounding the quarterback position as to who is calling the shots as to which quarterback starts on Sunday. When it came to the signing of Freeman, Spielman was emphatic that it wasn’t a unilateral decision, but that everyone in a decision-making capacity was on board with the signing.
“When we signed Josh Freeman, everybody was 100 percent on board with bringing Josh in,” Spielman said. “When it comes to play time, whether it’s the quarterback position or any position, we rely specifically on the coaches to make those decisions, and it should be a coaching decision only. Those coaches have their hands on those players every day. They have them in the meetings. They have them working on the field. They have them through walk-through. They’re the ones who are game-planning, so they know what a player, regardless of who it is, can and can’t do. So any decision on quarterbacks or who’s starting at this or who’s doing that, it’s purely 100 percent coaches’ decisions. Now, I talk through with Leslie and the coaches on my opinion on some things. I will always do that, but that’s the relationship you have to have. But ultimately, just like the personnel decisions fall in my lap and I’m responsible for those, the guys who are on the active 45, the guys who are starting, the guys who are playing are all based on what Coach Frazier and his coaching staff believe gives us the best chance to win. And our ownership, myself, our organization is going to support whatever decision they make. They’re going to support it 100 percent.”
After being thrust into the starting lineup after just 10 days on the roster when the Vikings lost to the Giants, it was speculated that Freeman was force-fed on the coaching staff. He hasn’t played since, ostensibly recovering from a concussion, but is a healthy backup now with Ponder starting Sunday at Dallas. Why sign Freeman to be a backup? Doesn’t that just muddy the waters even more for a team that had quarterback questions before Freeman arrived?
“The reason to bring in Josh Freeman is, when I looked at the situation, can we add a guy that would improve our 53?” Spielman said. “I understand the situation because of the sensitivity because it’s a quarterback position. But … this was a unique situation that does not happen every year. Believe me, there were more teams than just us involved in this. I felt that it was an opportunity to take a look at a young quarterback, whether he played or didn’t play – that’s the coaches’ decision – but for us to get an evaluation on a player for the next 12 weeks since he’s been in here. You rarely get an opportunity to do that. So, that was the decision why we wanted to bring Josh Freeman in.”
Spielman emphasized that his job is to make the Vikings a better organization and team by improving positions wherever he can.
The Vikings don’t have the luxury of having an elite quarterback whose résumé is unquestioned. They’re feeling their way through trying to find that guy. Is It Freeman? Is it Ponder? Is it Cassel? Is it none of the above?
Spielman said the second half of the season will be devoted to determining what they already have and if the combination of those players can move the team forward, while not discounting using the draft, trades or free agency to upgrade the position.
“If you’re not out there always looking and trying to find until you actually find a Peyton Manning, then I feel you’re not doing your job,” Spielman said. “Our job is to be aggressive, to try and get that position solidified. Does that mean that Christian Ponder is not that? I’m not saying that whatsoever. Is there a reason why we brought in Matt Cassel? There was a definite reason why we brought in Matt Cassel and the value he brings this organization. This was a unique situation that I felt was too good to pass up. Now, where we’re at with our quarterbacks will be determined at the end of the season. Now that we have the ability to look at all three of those, how the coaches handle who’s playing and not playing, who’s the backup and not the backup, I’m 100 percent whatever they decided to do. But I know by the end of the year we should definitely have an idea on what direction if we have a franchise quarterback on this roster right now, or do we have to go into the draft potentially and look for a franchise quarterback, or where do we go at the end of the season?”
While the expectation was that Freeman was going to be pushed into the starting lineup to gain in-game evaluations that are so critical to evaluating what a player does when the bright lights are on, Spielman is convinced that, whether Freeman starts again or not, the Vikings have a window in which to evaluate how he picks up the offense and whether he is a viable candidate to be re-signed at the end of the year.
“I believe you can because they’re with him in meetings,” Spielman said. “They’re with him at walkthroughs. We’re out there watching him at practice. They’re watching his work ethic. They’re watching him interact with the trainers. All the unique things that you couldn’t do, let’s say, if you waited until the end of the season and then tried to go out and sign a quarterback or any other position. This was just a great chance, whether he played or not, that you would have a much better idea of what a Josh Freeman was or whoever that is by the end of the season just by him being in your building and being around that player for 12 weeks.”
With Ponder starting Sunday, it would appear that, once again, it is his job to lose based on his performance against the Cowboys. While it may seem like a soap opera to fans, the ongoing drama of who is in and who is out as the starter and the No. 2 QB, Spielman affirmed that the signing of Freeman is not an indictment of Ponder. Rather, it’s competition that is needed for the Vikings to move forward with one or more of their current quarterbacks.
“I think Christian would say, too, that it’s the consistency thing,” Spielman said. “But when you look through the league you’re looking for those guys, especially at the quarterback position, it does take some time. I understand outside the building there’s not as much patience as there is inside the building because you know the development. But the biggest thing we talked about was where Christian was more consistent toward the end of the season, we haven’t seen that same consistency through the first part of the season. If he ends up being our starting quarterback and playing the rest of the games and you see him come on and see that he is playing consistently, then maybe he is the guy we’re going to go into the future with.
“But everybody tried to speculate that by bringing in Josh, this means Christian is done or this or that. That has nothing to do with anything. It was just an opportunity at a pretty critical position on your roster to take a look at some quality guys that are very young still for the position to decide on which direction you’re going to go in the future.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.